Regardless of your beliefs, culture, or location, death is something we can’t avoid. However, the ways that we respond to it are vastly different.
Thousands of years ago, the death rites of the early Dilmun civilisation involved burying their dead in thousands of low, cylindrical towers. The Mayans buried their loved ones with corn in their mouth, so their souls had something to feed on during their journey to the afterlife.
Even today diverse examples of burial practices can be found across the globe.
Many after-death rituals have endured for centuries and are still common. In addition, relatively new traditions shaped by environmental challenges are being practised more and more.
Modern death rituals
When a loved one dies, tradition and local customs often guide the family in how they lay the person to rest. Family and friends follow mourning practices and hold different events to honour the lives of their loved ones.
Modern funeral practices are built on strong cultural influences or threads of tradition in the ceremony. Let’s look at some of the most common modern ceremonies you might experience when you attend an event in honour of a loved one.
Wearing black for mourning
Wearing black during the mourning period is funeral etiquette that dates back to Roman times and continues in many cultures today. In these cultures, wearing dark clothing shows that a person is in mourning. In other cultures, other clothing norms may apply to rituals after death.
Celebrations of life
An increasing number of people choose to hold a celebration of life event to honour the deceased. The celebration might be held in a place of worship, restaurant, park, sporting facility, or pub. A messages for funeral flowers. It is an opportunity to say goodbye to the loved one who’s passed away and to offer sympathies to their families.
Holding a memorial service
A memorial service can take place weeks or even months after the death of a loved one.The service can be held in any location, but often, people choose locations with personal significance, for example, a favourite park, family home, beach, religious place of worship, a banquet hall, or some other event space.
There is no formal structure and people can choose to participate in many different ways, such as singing songs, playing musical instruments, delivering a reading or prayer, or sharing a memory of the person who has died.
Death rituals around the world
Let’s take a brief look at some of the more fascinating and intriguing ways that different cultures around the world handle death.
Sky burials in Tibet
The main religion in Tibet is Buddhism. It was introduced into Tibet from India and China beginning in the 600s. The ancient practice of sky burials is one of the Buddhist death rituals that is still practised today.
The corpse of the person who has died is placed on a high peak so that vultures and other birds of prey can eat it. This might sound a little macabre but it does serve a symbolic purpose and is very sustainable.
It represents the impermanence of life for followers of the Buddhist faith. They believe that a corpse is not more than a discarded shell and that the soul has already moved on toward reincarnation.
It’s considered a good sign if the vultures eat the entire body. Tibetan custom holds that even vultures wouldn’t eat the body of a person who had committed evil deeds.
Traditionally, Hindu funeral rites include chants and mantras which are overseen by an officiant, who is usually a Hindu priest or the eldest son of the deceased.
Hindu funerals, along with several other religions such as funerals in Islam, wrap the body of the deceased in a white sheet if it is a male, or a red sheet if they are a female.
It is customary to set up a small shrine in the home to remember the deceased. Fresh flowers, incense and lights are used in daily acts of remembrance that can offer great comfort.
Many cultures, particularly in Nordic countries, embraced water in their death rituals. However, it’s not common practice nowadays.
In Hawaii, however,water burials have been practiced for thousands of years and are still practiced today, albeit with some modifications.
A Jewish funeral follows fairly specific rites, although they do vary according to local custom. Judaism death rituals normally take place as soon as possible and include:
- Bathing the body
- Wrapping the body: Men are shrouded with a kittel (white linen or cotton robe) and then with a tallit (shawl). Women are shrouded in a plain white cloth
- Keeping watch over the body
- Funeral service that includes brief prayers and eulogies
- Burial in a grave
- Filling of the grave traditionally by family members and funeral guests
- The body is often positioned so that the feet face the Temple Mount in Jerusalem
The coffin will usually be the cheapest possible because a showy funeral and expensive coffin are inconsistent with the belief that money should be spent on the living, not the dead.
Islamic funeral etiquette
Sharia (Islamic religious law) calls for the burial of the body. Before that happens, a simple ritual takes place that involves bathing and shrouding the body, followed by prayer (salat).